Monday, October 31, 2011

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*


With this review of Terence Fisher's DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS on Halloween 2011, I achieve my main goal to post an average of one metaphenomenal movie-review a day, with PRINCE bringing the overall count to 33 flicks reviewed this month. Obviously compared to other online review-blogs, this is just a drop in the proverbial bucket-o'-blood. I'm considering seeing how the review-a-day project might pan out if I aspired to keep it going on a regular basis, in patent emulation of Dave Sindelar's "Movie of the Day" postings on Classic Horror Film Board. It's at least theoretically possible, but no promises at this time.

________________


In terms of internal continuity PRINCE takes place ten years after Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). As all good horror-fen know, in between the two films Hammer attempted to foist a faux-Dracula upon audiences in 1960's BRIDES OF DRACULA, though no actual character in that film is even named "Dracula."

PRINCE is a decent enough follow-up to the first film, though perhaps its most disappointing aspect is that after the title gives Dracula such a lordly introduction, he does nothing but grimace and snarl through most of the story, rather than impressing one with the combination of elegance and brutality seen in HORROR. Lee claimed he refused to speak the dialogue written for him, while Sangster, writer of the PRINCE screenplay, claimed that he intentionally reduced this Dracula to his near-silent status. I can't help suspecting a third reason for the vampire-lord's silence, possibly revolving around the mundanities of actors and producers dickering over money matters. In later Hammer films Dracula regains his volubility, so it's likely fans will never know the answer to the Mystery of the Mute Monster.

The setup of PRINCE is efficient enough. Four English travelers wander into Carpathia, encountering many superstitious peasants and a flamboyant Christian monk, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir). Despite warnings from both the Father and the peasantry, the travelers happen upon the seemingly abandoned Castle Dracula. In contrast to the majority of unwary travelers, these characters get one moment, courtesy of Sangster's script, in which they almost take the Right Road, for initially they plan to bed down for the night in an abandoned woodcutter's hut. However, in a moment evocative of both the Stoker novel and the Browning Universal adaptation, a driverless horsedrawn coach finds its way to the foursome. When they investigate by boarding it, it whisks them to the castle. They soon meet the castle's sole manservant, Klove (Philip Latham), who tells them that though his master Dracula is dead, he left behind instructions that visitors to the castle should always receive princely treatment. Three of the travelers-- cheerful Charles, his wife Diana, and his brother Alan-- think it's all a pleasant adventure. The fourth one, Alan's wife Helen (played as an uptight scold by fan-favorite actress Barbara Shelley) is ironically the only one sensitive enough to feel presentiments of evil.

The evil doesn't waste time making itself felt. Klove lures Alan out of bed and kills him, hanging his body up like a pig's corpse so that Alan's blood will drip down into a crypt full of Dracula's ashes, thus reviving the Count to full fleshy health. Dracula then shows termagant Helen who wears the pants in the new undead family, vampirizing her. Soon Dracula and his new bride confront the stunned Charles and Diana. However, the English couple has paid attention to some of the mythology about vampires. They manage to win free using crosses, both real and makeshift, to drive away the two vampires, and later take shelter in Father Sandor's monastery.

Lest any viewer wonder why Dracula doesn't go looking for new victims to celebrate his reborn status, Sandor tells the couple that because Dracula has now come near enough to touch Diana, the vampire considers Diana to be his property (shades of Freud's "jealous father" idea!) Soon Dracula finds himself a "Renfield"-like agent who admits him to the monastery. He comes very close to vampirizing Diana via the method described in Stoker's book, by having her feed on his blood at his bared breast (see illo above). However, he's interrupted and has to abandon her. Shortly later the priests kill Helen. Dracula, in an action once more evocative of Stoker, flees back to his castle courtesy of Klove and a horsedrawn wagon. Just as the sun sets Charles attempts to vanquish Dracula by opening his coffin-- at this point spilled out onto an ice-floe-- and staking him. Dracula arises and almost kills Charles. But Sandor, given an idea by Diana, shoots holes in the ice-floe so that Dracula succumbs to the running water beneath the ice.

This particular death-of-Dracula is one of the more inventive ones invented by Hammer Studios writers. In addition, this may be the film most responsible for promulgating the metaphysical idea of Dracula's supposed vulnerability to running water. To be sure, Stoker never says that vampires are harmed by such things as streams and rivers, only that they cannot cross them. Still, since running water connotes purity, as against stagnant water, the extension of Stoker's idea seems poetically valid.

Psychologically, it's interesting that writer Sangster reversed the characterization of the "Lucy Westenra" figure. In the Stoker novel, as in some though not all Dracula-adaptations, Lucy is somewhat flirtatious toward a variety of men. Shelley's Helen is just the opposite: constantly finding fault in everything, not least her husband. However, where Charles criticizes Helen for never wanting to leave her homeland, her fate-- being seduced by Dracula and killed by the priests-- is something of an negative object lesson: this is what happens even to prim English ladies who leave their native bailiwick.

I'm not certain or not whether PRINCE is the first time a movie depicted Stoker's method of vampirization, in which the aspiring vampire must drink his/her master's blood. Many vampire flicks from Hammer, Universal and elsewhere seemed satisfied to imply that the vampire bite was all that was needed. PRINCE also created a new expectation with regard to how often the vampire could come back from death. Some fans have wondered why there was never a distinct Universal series built around Dracula, apart from his role in later "monster mash" films, and I'd speculate that filmmakers in the 1930s and 1940s might have been wary of claiming that this kind of blasphemous corpse-activity could take place on a regular basis. But even if Hammer didn't always make the best use of Dracula, they deserve credit for promulgating the image of Dracula as not just "the undead," but in a very real sense, the "never-dead."






Sunday, October 30, 2011

TARZAN AND THE VALLEY OF GOLD (1966)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

I wasn't all that taken with Jock Mahoney's two Tarzan performances, but he projected a little more gravitas in the role of the ape-man than his successor Mike Henry. Henry has a physique almost as impressive as that of Gordon Scott, but he's only moderately skilled as an actor.

Still, he does fit the mold of the producers' 1960s concept of "Tarzan-as-globetrotting-James-Bondish-troubleshooter." Many reviewers have commented on the opening scene, showing Tarzan wearing a suit and tie while moving amid regular humanity, but the books not infrequently have the character doing the same thing, and even Johnny Weissmuller forced himself to go "New York native" in 1942. The sight of Tarzan wielding guns or firing a tank is a little less faithful to the concept, though. Still, the film's first violent scene-- in which the ape-man defeats a Mexican assassin with a giant advertising prop, a huge Coke-bottle-- probably would've had Jean-Luc Godard rolling in the aisles.

Tarzan's a fairly simplistic figure this time out, but at least there's a fair level of myth-symbolism in the "peace vs. war" scenario that almost seems a commentary on the previous film in the series, TARZANS' THREE CHALLENGES. In CHALLENGES Tarzan functioned as an outsider-hero who, in order to maintain a peace-loving regime in Thailand, had to defeat an ambitious Thai warlord. In VALLEY Tarzan once more functions as the outsider-hero-- this time journeying to Mexico to defend a lost city of Aztecs. These modern-day Aztecs have so thoroughly renounced their ancestors' violence that Tarzan has to do their fighting for them, though by picture's end they're a little more persuaded that "violence is sometimes necessary." But in contrast to CHALLENGES, VALLEY returns to the fertile symbolic grounds of the evil invading Europeans who started out as ivory-hunters back in TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932).

David Opatoshu's head villain Vinero provides one of Tarzan's more cerebral villains, though he's accompanied by considerable muscle too: a small army of tank-driving thugs and a hulking bodyguard (Don Megowan) with whom Tarzan grapples in the climactic scenes. Vinero's use of tanks and heavy artillery against powerless natives can't help but evoke colonial incursions, and his goal-- to have the Aztecs pile a mountain of gold at his feet-- evokes the story of the "room full of gold" Pizarro demanded of the Incan ruler Atahualpa. In addition, he comes up with one of the most sadistic maneuvers of any Tarzan villain. When his ex-girlfriend Sophia (Nancy Kovack) ticks Vinero off by questioning his sanity, he has a necklace welded around her neck and a bomb planted in a pendant at Sophia's neck. Without question the ensuing scene-- in which Tarzan can only remove the necklace by cautiously breaking the metal chain by main strength, while trying not to set off the explosive-- is easily the scene with the greatest tension, to say nothing of the sexy appeal of the danger shared by Sophia and Tarzan. Unfortunately, this Tarzan isn't allowed even as much implied hot-babe action as Gordon Scott apparently got in GREATEST ADVENTURE; once he's saved Sophia, she doesn't do much of anything but play mother-hen to Aztec kid Ramel (Manuel Padilla Jr, who would play a similar role as "Jai" on the 1960s Tarzan teleseries). Happily, Vinero meets the fate his predecessor Pizarro also deserved: getting buried alive in the gold he desired.

Director Robert Day's work is as sterling as usual Screenwriter Claire Huffaker's script, while not innovative, is solid, which is all the more remarkable in that almost everything else she ever wrote for films was in the genre of the western. .

Saturday, October 29, 2011

CRY OF THE WEREWOLF (1944)






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor,*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*


On average I've thought that horror-films that stressed magic over science tended to show greater symbolic complexity, or mythicity. However, CRY OF THE WEREWOLF goes against this dictum.

Long-time journeyman Henry Levin directed a few other films with minor horror-elements, but this is his only mainstream horror-flick, as well as his first credit in the director's chair. Levin shows precious little facility with the atmosphere necessary for horror, as the direction of CRY proceeds from setup to setup with such brisk efficiency that I almost found myself nostaglic for the works of William Beaudine.

The story is functional but uninspiring. Somewhere in Eastern Europe, Dr. Charles Morris, curator of a museum with a strong interest in gypsy lore, does some research into the history of a famous gypsy leader, Marie LaTour, who was reputedly to have been a werewolf. When he learns that Marie birthed a still-living daughter, Celeste, the discovery costs the doctor his life, as Celeste-- also possessed of the lycanthropic power-- wants no one to know of her unfortunate lineage. The late Charles' son Bob and his girlfriend Elsa continue to investigate the mystery, at which point Celeste begins to take an interest in Bob Morris. One might expect that Elsa might be Celeste's next target. Instead, in the film's one original touch, Celeste exerts some hypnotic control over Elsa, claiming that she wants Elsa to be her "sister werewolf." One wonders if she had a threesome in mind. However, for once the investigating police play a substantial role in the climax, breaking in and killing the werewolf (a prosaic-looking dog or wolf) with ordinary bullets.

CRY is pretty obviously a derivative job, with the gypsy elements culled from Waggner's 1941 WOLF MAN and its one somewhat scary sequence heavily indebted to Tourneur's 1942 CAT PEOPLE. But the scriptwriters merely move the elements of these very different movies around like checkers, and end up playing a pretty poor game for all that.

The sociological function here is the clash of modern ways with those of the gypsies, but the film, despite noting that culture's matriarchal structure, never evokes anything interesting about gypsy culture.

Friday, October 28, 2011

THE CREEPING FLESH (1973)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical, sociological, cosmological*


Roughly five years after Robert Hartford-Davis' 1968's CORRUPTION dropped the ball in getting full value out of its theme, expert horrormeister Freddie Francis shows him how that theme should have been done.

Not that Tigon Studios' CREEPING FLESH is a perfect horror film: it's probably a little overambitious and fails to deliver a memorable boogieman, posters to the contrary. But CORRUPTION fails to tell a good tale about what happens when Stuffy Old England tries to cohabit with Young Mod England, in the persons of a conservative professor and a swingin' young model. CREEPING FLESH doesn't draw its characters with all that much more complexity, but its somewhat-similar theme-- the consequences that arise when a conservative professor (again essayed by Peter Cushing) tries to control the forces of lubricity-- is far superior.

Essentially, the premise of CREEPING FLESH can be boiled down to: What if Doctor Jekyll had been an evolution-minded paleontologist rather than a chemist? Here the sin of Victorian doctor Emmanuel ("God is With Him") Hildern is that he unearths a strange manlike skeleton in the wilds of Papua New Guinea, brings it back to his lab in England and soon finds himself speculating that the skeleton may be "the source of all evil." There's decidedly something odd about the skeleton, in that when a little bit of water touches one finger of its skeletal hand, flesh forms on the bone until it's sporting a bonafide living finger. Like many a foolhardly scientist, Emmanuel not only fails to bury the creepy thing in a chalk pit somewhere, he amputates the finger and uses it to create a serum which-- calling Doctor Jekyll again-- he thinks will immunize human beings of their propensity for evil.

As an ingenious twist on the Stevenson theme, however, Emmanuel isn't concerned with making himself a sinless angel. He wants to keep his daughter as pure as the driven snow-- and as far from being like her mother as possible.

Just as CORRUPTION posited the notion that Cushing's fusty character (pushing 60 in '68) would land a hot young model, CREEPING FLESH asserts that the equally fusty Emmanuel once pursued and married a hot Folies Bergere dancer-- though at least he's supposed to have met and married her when he was younger. She's seen only in flashbacks, played with verve by Jenny Runacre. Mrs. Hildern managed to bequeathe Emmanuel a daughter, Penelope (Lorna Heilbron) before Mama went mad, possibly as a result of contracting syphilis from her many man-friends. Although Penelope has grown to young womanhood and dresses conservatively to please her father, Emmanuel will not allow her to know anything about her late mother's history, fearing that the slightest influence might transform Penelope into the image of her mother.
Enter the serum, which in the Stevensonian tradition has exactly the opposite effect of what Emmanuel desires.Soon conservative Penelope dresses up in one of her mother's flashy gowns and wanders down to the local pub, which leads her into a web of sex and violence. Meanwhile, Emmanuel experiences fear of a native prophecy predicting armageddon if the skeleton is exposed to rain, while the scientist's arrogant half-brother James (Christopher Lee) plots to usurp Emmanuel's research for his own purposes.

Considering that the writers of the CREEPING screenplay never worked on another horror-film before or after this one, they do a remarkable job of keeping up a steady stream of disquieting imagery, not only in Emmanuel's lab but also in brother James' insane asylum. The script doesn't succeed in putting across its radical melding of metaphysical and cosmological motifs; that is, of convincing watchers of the notion that "evil is a disease," a foreign culture that Emmanuel actually witnesses invading blood-cells. However, such an identification is certainly true to the culture of Victorian England. Today we may smirk when Sherlock Holmes proclaims of his foe Moriarty that "a criminal strain ran in his blood," but for Victorians this sort of conflation of science and morality served a definite social purpose.

The perception of sexuality in Victorian society, the well-known "whore vs. virgin" trope, is on full display here through Penelope's transformation into a female Mister Hyde. And yet, it's interesting that the filmmakers didn't leap to force the tormented Penelope to become an instant slut. During her confused pub-crawl she doesn't try to initiate sex, though she does dance tempestously. But when a man mistakes her for a whore and ushers her upstairs to a private room, Penelope doesn't do the obvious "Hyde" action and let him take her. Further, when the john tries to rape her, apparently still convinced that she's only play-acting, she claws his face so severely that he retreats. It's often been observed that a lot of cinematic depictions of rape end up making it look A Good Time Was Had By All. Director Francis doesn't go in this direction; his skillful camera shows Penelope horrified by the sexual threat all the way, without any intimation that her struggle is all for show. Indeed, when Heilbron runs afoul of the law, it's not for sexing people up, but for committing acts of violence-- arguably enacting her father's nature than that of her loose-limbed mother.

In Freudian terms Emmanuel's near-hysterical determination to keep his daughter's sexuality under control would probably be viewed as a camoflague for his actual desire for her, or at any rate for her resemblance to his wife. I wouldn't quite go that far; certainly Cushing never allows the audience to see repressed daughter-lust in Emmanuel. But there's no question that the script wants to show that the intention to prevent a thing can cause that very thing to happen. And Freudians would certainly love the symmetry of the "finger-motif"-- Emmanuel cuts off the skeleton's one whole finger near the beginning, and the last shot of the film is a close-up of his hand, now lacking one finger. Otto Rank would certainly reference the story of Orestes, who bit off his own finger due to the torment of the Furies as they punished him for killing his mother, just as Emmanuel desires to kill the aspect of his wife within his daughter.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

THE SMILING GHOST (1941)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

Given that director Lewis Seiler (best known for GUADALCANAL DIARY) worked for many years in B-pictures, it's odd that he directed so little of relevance to metaphenomenal cinema. In any case THE SMILING GHOST, though far from a masterpiece of the "haunted comedy" genre, is still a welcome addition.

One societal aspect that dates the film right away is that even though the slightly-dim hero Lucky Downing(Wayne Morris) is down on his luck jobwise, he still has a black valet in tow, Clarence (Willie Best), who for reasons left unclear hasn't fled for greener pastures. Clarence's loyalty to his employer is even harder to fathom when Lucky is engaged to be engaged; to pose as the fiancee of wealthy Elinor Bentley (Alexis Smith). Elinor is a bride plagued by a series of "done-away-with" grooms (three in all), having been apparently been terminated by a mysterious haunting spectre known as "the Smiling Ghost."

Lucky, somewhat besotted by the gorgeous heiress, takes the job, despite the caustic comments of lady reporter Lil (Brenda Marshall), herself more than a little interested in the handsome doofus. Soon, in addition to negotiating the hostilities or curious habits of Elinor's friends and relatives, Lucky and Clarence do indeed encounter a spectre with a hideous rictus-like grin-- an impressive makeup job, BTW, much better the one that's center-stage for William Castle's MR. SARDONICUS. Eventually it comes out that the Smiling Ghost is actually Elinor's first unfortunate fiancee, who only appeared to die (and was not offed by any ghost, smiling or otherwise). The jealous lover then sought to kill anyone who attempted to cohabit with Elinor, though as matters develop the beautiful Elinor isn't much in the "good character" department.

The most interesting psychological aspect of GHOST is a feminine one, which I term "Pretty vs. Gorgeous." In many romantic comedies, the excessively gorgeous women are often morally suspect in some way, while by contrast their merely pretty rivals are the salt of the earth. Toward the end of the picture Lucky belatedly realizes that he's really in love with pretty Lil rather than the gorgeous temptress Elinor, and makes the right choice (at least for his type of low-comic hero) in line with audience desires. My view that this "virtue vs. vice" choice has become a major U.S. archetypes may be supported by the fact that one can see representative examples that range as far apart in time as Frank Capra's 1931 PLATINUM BLONDE and Rob Reiner's 1985 THE SURE THING.

As expected, Willie Best plays the usual scaredycat black servant, though as it happens the white characters of GHOST aren't much braver in encountering the titular fiend (although support-cast Alan Hale is something of an exception as a tough butler with a "dese dem and doze" accent). In addition, Clarence has to contend with an eccentric old man living at the family mansion who likes to collect heads and suggests that he'd like to add Clarence's to his collection. And to slightly palliate the stereotype, Lucky Downing does treat Clarence more like a friend than a servant, thanks to good on-screen chemistry between Morris and Best. I've always thought the worst aspect of the "scaredycat black" routine appeared whenever it allowed the sensible white lead-hero to assume an air of superiority toward the comic black guy. Lucky, at least, doesn't do that, in contrast, say, to the heroes of KING OF THE ZOMBIES.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

ZOMBIES OF MORA-TAU (1957)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


Edward L. Cahn's first outing with the zombie genre is pretty dismal. Possibly the best one can say for it is that its lays ground for some better (and grottier) zombie-effects two years later in his INVISIBLE INVADERS, but even that is still pretty inferior to some of the better-written works he essayed, not least CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN, reviewed here.

On one point ZOMBIES makes an interesting contrast with WHITE ZOMBIE, in that both films are almost exclusively about white characters encountering voodoo and zombie-ism, even though one film takes place in Africa and the other in Haiti. But whereas my review of WHITE ZOMBIE argued that the elison of black characters might be a strategy undertaken to avoid unpleasant real-world matters, in ZOMBIES it seems more likely that the omission came about by sheer lack of imagination.

In essence, ZOMBIES is a treasure-hunt story, in which the questers after treasure have to contend with supernatural forces called up to protect the treasure. I suspect that the only reason the script by Bernard Gordon and George Plympton even bothers to set the story in Africa was to use the "zombie" tag as a convenient buzzword. But there's nothing inherently African or even voodoo-like about the specters with which ZOMBIES' treasure-hunters contend, as they're all dead white sailors cursed to protect a treasure they once sought to steal. With little difficulty the script could have had the sailors cursed by Polynesians, or Asians, or even American Indians-- and in all likelihood, the script would have made no more of the irony of marauding white men being forced to do the will of a "nonwhite" belief-system.

Some of Cahn's features benefit from creative use of stock character-types, but ZOMBIES isn't one of them. Young Jan Peters, the audience's viewpoint character, ventures to visit her grandmother (or great-grandmother, depending on the dialogue) on an African plantation in the doubtless fictional Mora-Tau. At nearly the same time a treasure-hunting expedition arrives, seeking a lost fortune in uncut diamonds. Grandma Peters tells the expeditioners a forbidding tale about certain sailors-- including her own captain-husband-- lost their lives attempting to steal the diamonds from a local pagan temple, and that they now stand guard over the sunken gems. Naturally, no one believes her: not the expedition-leader George Harrison (!), his wife Mona (the always voluptuous Allison Hayes), Harrison's virile young trainee Jeff, or the expedition's scientific consultant Doctor Eggert-- who really doesn't do much to justify being in the story, beyond a few learned observations. The nub of the conflict among the treasure-hunters is that Mona has a thing for young Jeff, much to George's displeasure, but Jeff would rather romance Jan, much to Mona's displeasure.

Enter the zombies: slow-moving but almost invulnerable zombies. Thanks to Grandma Peters' advice the treasure-seekers soon find that they can't do much of anything to repel the revenants, though the zombies will avoid fire, as it theoretically can burn them up (though this never comes close to taking place). The only moderately tense moments in the film take place underwater, when George and Jeff dive to a sunken ship and attempt to escape with a chest of diamonds. The unbreathing zombies simply stalk along the ocean floor and attempt to destroy the two divers.

One of the more peculiar developments is that the zombies manage to kill Mona (but in such a way that she looks completely wound-less). The thick-headed George doesn't get the idea that she's actually one of the living dead, and takes her back to the plantation-house, where she soon kills one sailor and tries to kill others. It's also moderately interesting to see slim Allison Hayes portray an emotionless engine of destruction who does end up killing George.

Grandma fortunately has a prophecy to help get rid of the undead: the seekers must "destroy the diamonds." In a rather limp conclusion this is justified by having the diamonds scattered into the coastline waters, so that they're supposedly beyond recovery. Once that's done, all the zombies discorporate, though we only see Grandma's long-long captain-husband turn into an empty pile of clothes. About the only amusing moment in the dull ending is seeing Jeff try to rationalize sailing away with the diamonds and selling them in various ports, so that the zombies could never track them all down. Given recent events in Wall Street, I certainly wouldn't mind seeing a bunch of waterlogged zombies slog their way to the Diamond Exchange looking for heads to break.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

WHITE ZOMBIE (1932)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical, sociological*
In my review of KING OF THE ZOMBIES, I wrote:

"The sociological elements of a white man enslaving black victims is not nearly as strong here as in the earlier WHITE ZOMBIE..."

A correspondent asserted that none of the living dead in Victor Halperin's seminal zombie-flick were black, as all are played by white actors and don't appear to be in blackface. This would be seem to be confirmed by the European names given to those that are billed, such as "Chauvin" and "Von Gelder." However, though a white actor portrays the "witch doctor" who teaches voodoo to the villainous Murder Legendre, and though he's given the European name "Pierre," I think it probable that scripter Garnett Weston meant him to be a black Haitian, regardless of the actor chosen for the role. Given that the script already introduces the anomaly of one European who is privy to the Haitian art of voodoo, Weston would hardly gain any narrative advantage from claiming that yet another European provided Legendre's introduction to this African-derived occult art. In addition, it seems to me that the zombified slaves of the infamous sugar-mill scene are a mixed lot, both black and white, though in this scene Halperin doesn't linger on the enslaved figures long enough to make the matter indisputable. I can't explain why WHITE ZOMBIE's makers avoided using black actors in the film to the extent that they did, but I think it's meaningful that the film's title is not "White Zombies" even though it's clear that other whites have been zombified prior to the female romantic lead Madeline (Madge Bellamy).

It's difficult to say how consciously either the filmmakers or audiences of 1932 thought about the sociological ramifications of Haiti, its religious amalgam of pagan and Christian elements, or the idea of zombies as "living dead men." But though I'm weary of Marxist platitudes about "postcolonialism" and the like, it can't be denied that to white U.S, citizens of the period, the concept of the zombie-- of a willing slave who will do anything he's commanded-- can't help but resonate on some level with the same citizens' knowledge of their country's implication in the history of black servitude. It's generally agreed that the film borrowed elements from two sources, William Seabrook's book MAGIC ISLAND and Kenneth Webb's Broadway play ZOMBIE (which was also the original working title of the Halperin film). I don't know how considerably either work uses the figure of the black zombie, but it may be that WHITE ZOMBIE'S filmmakers elided that figure merely to distance their work from their inspirations. (It's reported that Webb unsuccessfully sued the producers for copyright infringement.) One may also speculate that they felt the image of the black zombie might in some way hurt the film's chances at the box office, which, if true, might indirectly confirm the sociological influence of that image. Were that true, then the "white zombies" of the film might be deemed camoflague for the more controversial figure of the enslaved black servant.

In terms of the film's psychological components, the central figure might be deemed not romantic leads Madeline and her fiancee Neil, nor even the powerful villain Legendre (Bela Lugosi), but the weak-willed plantation owner Beaumont. Beaumont, besotted by Madeline's beauty, is on one level a Faust who calls up a demon, yet also the summoner who cannot control that demon. Legendre honors their bargain in typical Satanic fashion, making Madeline appear to have died so that the voodoo priest can resurrect her later. But as with many deals with devils, Beaumont finds that the soulless-seeming Madeline brings him no joy. His attempt to make Legendre reverse the voodoo curse merely gives Legendre an excuse to recruit Beaumont to the villain's zombie legions.

Halperin and Weston seem intentionally vague about the process of zombification. Since in the end Madeline is restored to Neil, it may be assumed that none of the zombies are technically dead. Yet there's implicitly something like real magic going on here, as opposed to the simplistic hypnotism-explanation from KING OF THE ZOMBIES. Lugosi repeats a mystic gesture throughout the film-- clasping one hand within another-- that implies that he works some telepathic will upon his slaves. There's some superficial discussion between Neil and a priest about the history of the pagan practices on the Haitian island that supports the film's claim to metaphysical symbolism, though the basic Faustian scheme is the strongest element.

Like many who have praised the film, my main affections are for Lugosi's demonic performance as Legendre and for Halperin's suggestive atmosphere, sometimes deemed like that of a "fairytale" in some reviews. Most of the other characters are far from strongly drawn, but in one sense this narrative strategy reinforces that faerie sensibility. Clearly Madeline's unearthly seduction also takes some influence from the Lugosi DRACULA, but her zombification does have its own identity apart from the vampirism of the comparable character in the earlier film.

Monday, October 24, 2011

CORRUPTION (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*


By the time this Brit-horror film showed up on theater-screens, there had been a good number of films, horror and otherwise, which stressed the culture clash between "Old Blighty" and New Mod Britain. The clash even resounded in some American productions. The award for the most farcical depiction of the conflict is probably the third-season BATMAN episode entitled "The Londinium Larcenies," where it takes the shape of fusty Brit villain Lord Ffogg contending with his Carnaby Street-clad evil daughter Lady Prudence.

CORRUPTION has its own farcical moments, of course, which is a shame. The early set-up of the conflict suggests a potential depth of character that the latter half chooses not to deliver on.

The setup: Upper-class surgeon Sir John Rowan (the always excellent Peter Cushing) attends a party with his new girlfriend Lynn (Sue Lloyd). The host is Lynn's former fashion-photographer, who immediately tries to lure her back into the modeling game, getting her to pose at the party under hot spotlights. Lynn claims to be marrying Rowan for his character, not his title or money, yet it's clear by her attitude that she likes the idea of being the center of attention again. However, Rowan is irritated by her waywardness and tries to make her leave the party with him. Rowan and the photographer struggle, and both are responsible for knocking over a spotlight onto Lynn. Her face, the great source of her self-esteem, is horribly scarred.

Rowan tries to make things right, as he just happens to have a new endocrine treatment ready to test on some needy patient. To everyone's amazement, the treatment works, and Lynn's facial skin repairs itself-- for a while. When Lynn regresses, Rowan does the only thing a guilty doctor can do: he starts killing other women to derive flesh for facial grafts. One of his last victims, however, is a girl whose raffish friends invade Rowan's home looking for her. The thuggish young mods apparently plan to rob and maybe kill the older couple no matter what's happened to the girl, but they're rather comically shocked to find that the good doctor is a killer who keeps a severed head in his fridge. Chaos ensues, culminating in the film's most memorable scene, as a surgical laser on a swivel-mount goes wild and kills everybody in the house.

There was some good story-potential that might have been explored alongside all the killings and histrionics: though Rowan and the photographer are responsible for Lynn's injury it could be said that she brings her calamity about through her own ambivalence. This is supported by an interesting early scene where Lynn tries to get back into the modeling game (prior to the facial regression), only to be told she's been out of the game too long. But as the film progresses any subtlety of character depiction goes out the window, and Lloyd's performance, originally presented in naturalistic terms, becomes that of a shrieking harpy. Cushing does his best under the circumstances but he hasn't much with which to work.

Despite the amusing attempt of advertisers to make gender conflict a selling-point for the film-- as noted above in the "not a woman's picture" ad seen above-- there's really no interesting points, subtle or unsubtle, about female vanity or the like.

The film's final scene apes the "it may be all a dream, or is it?" ending of 1945's DEAD OF NIGHT. But DEAD worked to make that ending effective, while this time the same device comes off as nothing but... a corruption.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES (1963)




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


Ah, now this is the film TARZAN GOES TO INDIA should have been!

As I've read nothing about the production history of the two Jock Mahoney Tarzans, it's possible that each film's quality was determined not by the creative people, but by the degree of cooperation each production received from the place of the location shoot. INDIA, as I said before, barely takes advantage of the color and paegantry of the Indian subcontinent, but for all that I know, it may be that India didn't extend the producers much in the way of resources. Be that as it may, it looks like Thailand went all out to make their country look really cool for Tarzan's visit.

The conflict in CHALLENGES parallels many of the African-based films in which primitive tribes were torn between keeping to their ancient customs or converting to the sometimes dubious virtues of European civilization-- TARZAN'S FIGHT FOR LIFE being one of the most blatant. CHALLENGES. however, is a little more, well, challenging. Here the native way of Thai life is essentially peace-loving, as maintained by a beneficent Council of Elders, who also select a new temporal leader every time the old ones dies (which sounds more like a Tibetan than Thai custom). As the film begins, the old leader (Woody Strode) does pass away, but his warlike brother Khan (also Strode) wants to take over and institute a monarchy, in which he's groomed his young son to succeed him. One may presume, given his name alone, that Khan would probably be hostile to Western powers, but this isn't made explicit: the emphasis is upon Khan as a rogue element interfering with the normal Thai culture.

Because Khan is a danger to the Elders' selection, gradeschool-aged Prince Kashi, Tarzan (often referred to as "the African" by Thai characters) is summoned to transport the Prince to the place where he will tested to win the right of leadership. Oddly, both Tarzan and Kashi undergo the "three challenges" of the title. Tarzan's all occur toward the beginning, since he has to prove his strength to the Elders before they entrust the Prince to him. Later, Kashi must make three identifications of relics from his predecessor in order to be validated. In terms of narrative emphasis, the most important ordeal in the film is actually a fourth challenge that Khan makes to Kashi's rule: a challenge that obliges Tarzan to stand in as Kashi's proxy. This climactic battle begins with a grueling race and ends with the two combatants dueling with swords on a rope net over a series of boiling-oil vats.

Director Robert Day takes full advantage of Thailand's natural and manmade wonders, just as he did with the locations of Kenya for TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT. Many of the characters, while far from complex, are given humanizing touches. In one brief scene Khan's young son rebels against his father's attempt to force him into the role of supreme leader. In another, Kashi's nursemaid Cho San reveals motherly feelings for the Prince, which make no sense to his childishly-logical mind because she's not his mother. Tsu Kobayashi as Cho San gets to show a surprising range of emotions for a Tarzan film, particularly in comparison to the Indian actress Simi in INDIA, who had nothing to do but stand around pontificating.

Throughout the Tarzan series, Tarzan had dozens of fights with African warriors. His duel with Woody Strode's Khan may be the first time the cinematic ape-man went mano-a-mano with a single black opponent of comparable stature. It's a curious circumstance, then, that movie-Tarzan's first significant black villain is supposed to be playing an Asian.

Friday, October 21, 2011

MY SON THE VAMPIRE (1952)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

I know that the above film didn't receive the American title I'm using until six years after the death of star Bela Lugosi, but since that's the name under which I've always seen the film, that's the one I'm going with.

Re: the immortal (or is that immoral?) teaming of Bela Lugosi and Britain's serial comedy-star Old Mother Riley (actor Arthur Lucan in old-lady drag)-- this film is one of the best proofs that humor often doesn't travel well from one country to another. In my teen years I saw a TV broadcast of SON, and I thought it merely stupid and unfunny. Seeing it now, it's still not funny to me, but I can distantly appreciate gleaning from the film some sense of the comic traditions of the English music-hall, which was Britain's equivalent of American vaudeville. I'm aware of a lot of vaudeville-based American comedians that I once thought were quite funny-- Red Skelton and Milton Berle, for two. It's likely that a lot of their appeal for me way back then was simply because they reflected my culture's preferences-- though, to be sure, Uncle Miltie's propensity for drag never seemed to catch fire in the U.S. the way similar routines did in Great Britain.

The function here is loosely sociological, less for the aspect of the plot involving Bela Lugosi (though anything with spies in it has some hint of matters sociological) than for Lucan's antics as a brash Irish working-class woman. "Her" best moment here is probably a song celebrating the joys of dodging bill-collectors. The scenes pairing Lugosi with Lucan aren't particularly interesting, though Lucan does have a fun scene being chased by Lugosi's huge clanking robot.

Lugosi's character Von Housen isn't a vampire, but a mad scientist out to attack the democratic world with various super-weapons-- though the robot is the only one we see. As a nod to the Dracula image, Von Housen believes that he has vampires in his pedigree, and is first seen arising from his coffin after a night's sleep, attired in the *de rigeur* evening-dress of the Universal bloodsucker. However, in one of the film's few nods to realism, Von Housen dispenses with the evening-wear afterward, and goes about clothed in an ensemble of black tunic and trousers that seems a wee bit more practical for a spy and saboteur.

Most of the plot revolves around a post-office mistake that sends Von Housen's robot to Mother Riley, followed by the attempts of the spy and his noodnik henchmen to retrieve the marauding mechanism. But in a few scenes, I was rather impressed with Lugosi's comedic work. Often in comedy-horrors, Lugosi was required to play his villainous character reasonably "straight," as seen in ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY, BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, and of course ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. However, Van Housen is allowed to be a little nuttier, and Lugosi manages to put across that nuttiness without resorting to mugging (which he did do on occasion). Bela's best scene is the moment when he realizes that he's received the Wrong Box in the mail: the alternation of broad surprise and horror on Lugosi's face looks real, and yet is played just so that it's also pretty darn foolish-looking.

The story behind Lugosi's sojourn in Great Britain is without doubt more interesting than the movie, though had he not done the film, Americans would never have known the joys of Mother Riley-- for whatever that's worth.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA; JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER (1966)







































PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) fair
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


These two quickies, directed back-to-back by legendary William "One-Shot" Beaudine, ought to be pretty much the same on the quality level. Surprisingly, though they use the same formula-- combining western thrills with gothic boogeymen-- one does a much better job with the material than the other, though even the "good" one is only a little better than average.

Anyone with a nickname like "One-Shot" might be expected to appreciate westerns, in which a "fast draw" is so important. But from a glance at Beaudine's imdb credits, I'm surprised to see he has almost no "straight" westerns on his resume, though he did do a few serious (or allegedly serious) horror-films. Given that Beaudine was for many years director-in-residence for the long-running "Bowery Boys" series-franchise, perhaps BILLY and JESSE should be seen as more in the tradition of "Bowery"-style spoofs of straight genres, like Beaudine's "Bowery Buckaroos."

The two films were released back-to-back as their own internally-consistent double bill, and scripts for both were credited to a Carl Hittleman, who unlike Beaudine did have a number of "straight" westerns on his resume. Imdb credits a second writer on BILLY, so I'm tempted to wonder if the extra collaborator made a difference.

JESSE, which is listed first in imdb, is clearly the lesser effort. Prior to the introduction of the western hero, the audience meets two European fugitives who have traveled to the West to escape justice: Doctor Maria Frankenstein and her brother Rudolf. Maria, like all Frankensteins, wishes to prove she can build a better man than God could, but her experiments, culled from the local Mexican population, have all died off. Later Maria will learn that her timid brother Rudolf has been poisoning the subjects to prevent her success, but at the outset she decides she's been failing because she needs a "giant" of a man on which to experiment.

As it happens, Jesse James, on the run from the law, happens to have a really big fellow named "Hank" riding with him. Circumstances cause Hank to be wounded near the Hacienda of Frankenstein (good a name for it as any) and Jesse unwittingly lets the strange lady doctor work on his friend. However, a local Mexican girl, name of Juanita, informs Jesse that her brother mysteriously disappeared while in the good doctor's care. Before Jesse can take action, Maria "fixes" Hank by giving him a brain transplant and christening him "Igor." In time-tested tradition Igor ends up turning on his new "mom" and almost kills Jesse before Juanita shoots the not-too-super monster to death.

I tried to find something good in this farrago, but the plot crawls along like a wounded crab, and the acting and stuntwork wasn't even as competent as your basic "Roy Rogers" outing. John Lupton seems to be asleep during his performance as Jesse, though he's supposedly so attractive that both Juanita and Maria (from the Italian side of the Frankenstein family?) fall in love with him. At the climax Jesse faces off against berserk Igor, brandishing his six-gun, but not only does he not manage to shoot when Igor attacks, the actor practically tosses his gun away during the struggle, so that moments later Juanita will be able to pick it up.

I suppose the Campbellian function here has to be "sociological" in the theme both JESSE and BILLY share is "Never trust a foreigner." However, for some reason BILLY's encounter with a European vampire works better, perhaps because the vampire resembles the "dude" figure seen in many westerns.

Of course top-billed John Carradine's performance as a sagebrush Dracula most conspicuously lifts this film out of the doldrums, and even the less noteworthy performers (Chuck Courtney as Billy; Melanie Plowman as his girl Betty) are as ships lifted by a rising tide in his presence. In addition, though Carradine's look is certainly borrowed from his Universal "Dracula" appearances, BILLY takes advantage of color photography to give this Dracula a more decidedly Satanic look.

The plot is comparatively efficient. Dracula, for some reason sojourning out west, encounters a stagecoach and learns from one occupant of young Betty. From a glance at her picture he immediately wants her, so he causes the deaths of everyone in the 'coach and poses as the young woman's uncle, assuming authority on the family ranch. Fortunately Billy, not very wise in the way of Euro-vamps, receives some advice from a Middle European emigre, full of advice on wolfsbane-- and even after Dracula gets rid of the emigre, the local doctor stands in for Van Helsing, advising Billy to stake the vamp to death with a "spike"-- oddly enough, a metal scalpel. It would have been much more in the western tradition to use a railroad spike, but you can't have everything.

There's a cheap but still creepy scene of Dracula seducing Betty in the night, and a curious ending: after Dracula is spiked in a cave, a bat flies out of the cavemouth and perishes. Given that Dracula's body is still on the cave-floor, did the script conceive this as the vampire's damned soul, perishing like his body? Food for (a little) thought...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960); TARZAN GOES TO INDIA (1962)







PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor*, (2) good
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

Once again I find myself reviewing two Tarzan flicks in which one's very good and the other's just "eh." Unfortunately as time went on the franchise would turn out more of the latter than the former.

I'm going to do the lesser work first, even though it's second in terms of chronology, just because I feel like getting it out of the way. Director John Guillerman's TARZAN GOES TO INDIA registers as a huge disappointment alongside the same director's excellent TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE, even though the director once again shot the ape-man's adventures on colorful location-settings.

Theoretically the setting in an Indian jungle should have sparked the creativity of the writers (one of whom was Guillerman). India has long been a watchword for the wondrous and the exotic, and even Tarzan's long-standing concern with elephants might have been related to Indian beliefs or customs concerning the animals. But INDIA is not much more than a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC travelogue with a little action interspersed.

The plot is as predictably simple as the hoary ivory-hunter schtick from the 30s films. Tarzan, who just happens to be friends with a Maharajah, is called to India for his elephant-expertise. The Indian government has given an engineering company permission to construct a new hydroelectric dam in a certain valley, in order to bring the prosperity of progress to the locals. Unfortunately, some 300 elephants dwell in the valley, and they'll all be drowned when the dam's building inundates the valley. There's one way that Tarzan and his allies (a young boy named "Jai," and the Maharajah's daughter) can lead the elephants out of the valley, but it means trampling some of the construction-work of the engineers. Most of the engineers, with the exception of heavy Brice (Leo Gordon), don't want to kill elephants (nothing is said of other animals in the valley) but they're desperately trying to finish the dam before the monsoon season, so human progress comes first. Tarzan has a handful of episode encounters with local wildlife (such as a nice struggle with a cobra) before he leads his allies and the elephant-herd through the engineer's construction to safety. Then, with a nod to the importance of progress, he and his allies help the engineers rebuild, and everyone's happy but the villain Brice, who gets killed earlier.

There's nothing horribly wrong with INDIA; it's just flat, as are most of the actors' performances. Jock Mahoney's first of two performances of Tarzan is adequate, but he doesn't quite pull off Gordon Scott's steely-eyed glare at the film's villain. None of the one-shot characters are very interesting, though the character of Jai (played by an Indian actor of the same name) seems to be an early template for another Jai, a support-character played by Manuel Padilla Jr. in the 1966-69 Tarzan teleseries.

Moving a little backwards, TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, directed and partly written by long-time journeyman Robert Day, seems to pattern the look of MAGNIFICENT on Guillerman's ADVENTURE. For the last time Gordon Scott plays a Tarzan who sweats and gets wounded, as well as speaking complete sentences. As seen before in TARZAN AND THE LOST SAFARI, once again Tarzan becomes saddled with leading a group of mostly-helpless civilized types from one African spot to another, though the ape-man is primarly concerned with getting fugitive raider Coy Banton to justice. Tarzan's "Stagecoach"-style retinue is made up of pretty stock figures: a comely young woman, a disgraced doctor, a engineer (albeit an educated black man, whom Tarzan says is the only one he *wants* coming along), and a couple with a troubled marriage. The husband, Mr. Ames (Lionel Jeffries) in said couple is the prime source of causing trouble for Tarzan's expedition, as he's a conceited Englishman constantly seeking to prove his virility and usually screwing things up for others. But Tarzan has to take him along for specifically altruistic reasons: because many Africans will lose needed work if Ames' business deal doesn't go through. There's a development the Weismuller films would never have countenanced: Tarzan the Capitalist Stooge!

However, just as STAGECOACH had its motley crew pursued by hostile Indians, Tarzan's group is relentlessly pursued by the raider-family to which Coy belongs: the patriarch Abel Banton (John Carradine) and his three other criminals sons, all heavily-armed expert trackers. To my recollection this is the first time film-Tarzan ever faced a whole family of villains, as opposed to his meeting separate-but-related opponents (as in TARZAN AND THE TRAPPERS) or whole tribes, which are admittedly "extended families." Abel Banton's monomaniacal desire to rescue his favorite son Coy from justice gives him a touch of tragic grandeur, even if he is still a thief and a murderer.

One interesting aspect of the script's construction is how each group manages to lose some members, not just to death (Tate the engineer, two of Banton's sons), but also through disaffection. Mrs. Ames, tormented by her husband's ridiculous braggadocio, falls in love with Coy Banton's charms and releases him so that he'll take her away. Predictably, her action doesn't pan out very well for her. Meanwhile, after two of Abel's four sons have died, the last one in the party walks away from the mission and out of the story. Abel Banton comes very close to dealing out Old-Testament justice upon his offspring, but ultimately refrains. Abel ends up dying shortly after being reunited with his favorite, however. The film climaxes with Tarzan having a brutal battle against Coy Banton atop a rocky crag, a fight which is clearly modeled upon the end-fight in ADVENTURE, and almost as well-executed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946)


PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

One interesting similarity between this 1946 film and 1935's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is that in addition to holding in common the exact same pattern in the categories I list above, both films are also about a character who tries to fake a supernatural visitation, only to be victimized by his fantasy that the supernatural now haunts him. BEAST does proceed to that point a little more logically than MARK does, however.

I read the original "Beast with Five Fingers" short story years ago, but have not reread it for the purpose of this essay. Though I'm sure the filmmakers took some key concepts from the prose tale, one review asserted that the film changed a lot of the details, so I'll approach the BEAST as its own animal.

My discussion necessitates a thorough summary:

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

A rich former pianist, Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), occupies a villa in Italy. A stroke has crippled him, though he still has one strong working hand. His only relatives live in England, but there are still three people in his life: Bruce (Robert Alda), an American living in Italy on his wit and charm, Julie (Andrea King), a young woman engaged to be Ingram's nurse, and Hilary (Peter Lorre), Ingram's secretary, who spends all his times poring over Ingram's library for its recondite occult contents. Despite his age and crippled condition, Ingram falls in love with Julie and wants her to stay with him. However, Julie has an off-again on-again affair with Bruce, which is somewhat in the "off" position as she plans to leave Italy, much to the chagrin of both Bruce and Ingram. During a conversation with the condesceding patriarch, Hilary foolishly reveals to Ingram the affair between Bruce and the woman Ingram now loves. Ingram almost chokes Hilary to death with his good hand, and then fires him. But the same night Ingram, spooked by intimations of death, gets out of bed, roams the halls in his wheelchair and ends up taking a fatal tumble down a flight of stairs.

Soon the late Ingram's greedy relatives show up, expecting a substantial inheritance. One of them smugly tells Hilary that he plans to transport everything in the estate, including Hilary's beloved library, back to England. When the will bequeaths Ingram's entire estate to Julie, the relatives object, and conspire with the family lawyer to contest the will. The next night the lawyer is strangled, and some evidence points to the idea that Ingram's detached hand has assumed a ghostly existence and is out to kill those who contest the will. In due time it comes out that Hilary is faking the existence of a spectral hand so that Julie can keep ownership of the library, since she's favorably disposed to his continuing his studies. However, Julie isn't favorably disposed to murder. She's saved from being killed when Hilary begins to lose his marbles and see the hand of Francis Ingram appearing before him, until it finally strangles him to death-- though the coda reveals that Hilary merely killed himself with his own psychological spectres.

The psychological texture of BEAST-- scripted by Curt Siodmark from the prose tale and directed by Robert Florey-- is much denser than that of Tod Browning's MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. Yet while one can see a faint conformity with the Freudian "Oedipus complex" in MARK-- a conformity which David J. Skal theorized may have been derived from Browning's encounter with Freudian theory-- BEAST seems to play around with Oedipal elements only to take them off in another direction.

In TOTEM AND TABOO Freud theorized that in antiquity aging patriarchs attempted to keep all the young women (possibly including their daughters) to themselves, so that the young man had to rise up and kill the patriarchs to get back the women. Ingram is from one angle just such a "bad father," as was Baron Otto in MARK, although the process by which Ingram falls in love with Julie is given greater development. But though Bruce is Ingram's competition, Ingram and Bruce never exchange any hostilties. Instead Ingram's almost "kills the messenger" when Hilary tells Ingram of the affair, though even before that Bruce remarks that Ingram treats Hilary like dirt. Freud might thus see Bruce as the "favored son" and Hilary as the "son out of favor." This pattern, which may or may not occur in the original short story, was one which Siodmak had invoked independently in his earlier WOLF MAN script.

Yet the Freudian paradigm doesn't work here as well as it does in MARK, or even DEAD MEN WALK. In the Florey-Siodmak scenario, "despised son" Hilary could not care less about the feminine prize coveted by Bruce and Ingram. As noted earlier, Hilary cares only about his astrological research. The purpose of the research is never clearly spelled out but seems to have something to do with forecasting the date of individual deaths. His motive for killing, or attempting to kill, the intruders on his territory is to protect the property he refers to as "his books."

I briefly wondered if the script had been tooled with Peter Lorre in mind. By 1946 Lorre had long since established a vivid history of playing men who were either mad or perverse by societal standards-- M, MAD LOVE, THE MALTESE FALCON. By contrast with the Lorre characters in these narratives, Lorre's Hilary seems utterly asexual. However, an anecdote from Siodmak asserted that he had framed his script with handsome Paul Henreid in mind for the role, not Lorre.

Still, whether the asexuality of Hilary stems from the original story or the film-script, the film-Hilary evinces some fruitful parallels to other horror-film madmen who seem obsessed with gaining some pure, non-utilitarian form of knowledge-- not least of which would be Robert Florey's 1932 "adaptation" of another famed horror-tale: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, which invented "Doctor Mirakle" to be its Frankenstein-like rogue-scientist.

Similarly, whereas the transferred hand of MAD LOVE seemed to carry an Oedipal charge, there's no grounds for interpreting the "beast with five fingers" as some phallic substitute. Even though the "beast" never exists outside of Hilary's mind, one might say that Hilary has corrupted the hand of his former master, or at least its image, even as Frankenstein perverts dead bodies. The parallel holds even in terms of the source, for unlike many of Hollywood's bitter crippled characters, Ingram is forbidding but never actually villainous. Hilary alone casts Ingram in the role of supernatural avenger, and Hilary pays the price for this presumption.

Given that so many Hollywood films have deferred to Freud for rationales about haunting spectres conjured up by guilty minds, this digression from Freudian motivation is worth noting. It may not be very clear what Hilary wants to achieve with his astrological research, but at least his character demonstrates a broader concept of *libido,* demonstrating-- on a somewhat parallel path with Carl Jung's theories-- that sex is not the only thing human beings truly value, much less the only thing they think to be worth killing for.

Monday, October 17, 2011

CLAYMORE (2007)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*




I've recently finished all 26 episodes of the FUNimation release of this dark-fantasy anime teleseries, without any recourse to the manga on which the series is based. In one sense this may be just as well, as net sources have asserted that the manga series had not yet finished at the time that the teleseries was scheduled to conclude. I didn 't know this while watching the DVDs, but I would certainly concur that the ending to the series fails to satisfy the dramatic underpinnings of the story. The last episodes feel padded not only with sheer hyperviolence but also with a number of tedious scenes showing one of the minor characters taking forever to reach a certain destination.




I do admire the basic concept of CLAYMORE. The series takes place in a dark, medieval-feeling fantasy-world where the human inhabitants are constantly under attack by carnivorous, shape-changing monsters called "Yoma" (named for a bogie from Japanese mythology). To combat the Yoma, a mysterious organization creates sword-wielding warriors colloquially called "Claymores," which the manga presumably derived from the Scottish sword. Claymores are created by somehow hybridizing human beings with Yoma so that the Claymores have supernormal powers, enabling them to change shape to some extent and to heal from extraordinary wounds, even to the extent of reattaching torn limbs. The usual Faustian problem arises from this stratagem, though: Claymores have a tendency to convert to Yoma at some point, at which point they must be slain by their own kind.




At the time of the story, all Claymores are female, with the viewpoint character being one Clare, the only warrior in the narrative to form a strong attachment with a male, name of Raki. However, some backstory informs us that in earlier days the organization experimented with both male and female hybrids. Male Claymores proved useless, however, for they tended to become seduced by the Yoma impulses too easily. I would have liked to have seen the script touch more deeply on the perceived differences of male and female psychology that led to the superiority of females in this matter, but there's only the vague statement that the power of the Yoma nature has a quasi-sexual appeal. The implication is that dudes just can't keep from going werewolf, though it seems to be inevitable that the female warriors eventually succumb as well. I only listened to the English soundtrack, but I suspect the Japanese translation didn't address the psychology in much greater depth.







Sociologically CLAYMORE bears a strong resemblance to many manga and anime in which male characters are almost entirely omitted in favor of a sisterhood based on female companionship, a narrative motif that became extremely popular in Japan during the 1990s and 2000s. However, at base CLAYMORE is yet another Japanese valorization of the samurai ethic, translated into fantasy-world terms. The Claymores travel from place to place like the traditional ronin (masterless samurai), defending small enclaves of normal humanity in exchange for payments that are passed on to their main organization. Strangely, in 26 episodes I never saw anything resembling the ruling powers of the world, with the exception of Yoma masquerading as human lords. The exclusion of such a ruling class in the teleseries helps emphasize the Claymores' distance from ordinary human beings, who fear and sometimes revile Claymores as just another species of monster. More tellingly, Claymores are forbidden by their masters to strike down even evil human beings, which may be the organization's means of keeping the Claymores themselves from becoming rulers. This touches on another fault of the teleseries: that it never reveals the essential nature of the Claymore organization as being good, bad, or beyond such terms. In any case, the series places all of its emphasis on the near-unbridgeable gulf between the noble warriors and the humdrum town-dwellers. I'm reminded of Socrates' assertion in THE STATESMAN as to how two virtues might conflict: that of the temperance that flourishes within a community versus the rule-breaking courage of the professional soldier.










Naturally, there is partial redemption for the Claymores, beyond their own insular sisterhood, signaled from the start by Clare's friendship with ordinary town-boy Raki. However, over 26 episodes this theme of rapprochement is unevenly developed, with more narrative emphasis going to Clare's emnity for recurring villainess Priscilla, a "Claymore gone bad." As a villain Priscilla is poorly developed, which may have much to do with the series not being able to draw from a finished manga. A couple of episodes are devoted to a much more interesting "bad Claymore" named Ophelia, who like many Japanese villains has a well-developed capacity for sadism. One of the serial's most gripping moments begins with Ophelia slicing off Clare's legs at the knees, and then challenging her former comrade to re-attach her limbs before Ophelia can kill Raki. Unfortunately, Ophelia doesn't last as long as I would've liked.







In conlcusion, CLAYMORE is a worthy enough series of its kind. And for all I know at present, it might even be better than the original manga.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

THE HOUSE OF USHER (2006)







PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, cosmological*









SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Directed by Hayley Cloake, the 2006 HOUSE OF USHER isn't literally true as an adaptation of the famous Poe novella "Fall of the House of Usher." However, compared to the 1989 adaptation by director Alan Birkinshaw, the Cloke version at least touches on some of the themes Poe invoked in the original "Usher."

This time the naive visitor to a modern-day Usher mansion is a young physical therapist named Jill (Izabella Miko). She receives news that an old friend, Maddy Usher, has died. Upon attending the funeral, she becomes reacquainted with Roderick, aka Rick, Usher, with whom she had a past love affair. However, apparently neither Maddy nor Rick ever told Jill much about their background. Soon Jill re-commences her love affair with Rick, even though he suffers from the disease of neurasthenia and has some odd habits-- talking to himself while he writes, seeking surcease from his hypersensitive nerves by immersing himself in an isolation tank. The Usher house also boasts a wizened old housekeeper who repeatedly warns Jill to get lost.

One online reviewer commented that Cloake's USHER felt more like suspense than horror. That's somewhat justified, in that Cloake spends about eighty percent of the film having Jill moving along dimly-lit corridors or being tormented by the housekeeper's admonitions or by her own growing suspicions. However, what keeps this film from being mere suspense is that Rick isn't just a rich oddball. Jill learns (SPOILER again) that the Usher family is obscurely cursed in that the entire line consists of twins continually giving birth to twins. This alone is enough to propel the flick into the "weird families and societies" trope, although admittedly not much overtly horrific happens throughout the story..

It's questionable as to how much Poe consciously meant to invoke the spectre of incest in his "Usher." At the very least, the image of the original Roderick and Madeleine living together in a dark old mansion suggests a potential taboo-violation. In the prose story, Roderick conveniently forgets Madeleine's tendency to experience deathlike seizures, and prematurely buries her; she then claws her way free of confinement and strangles Roderick to death. Cloake references this comeback late in the film, but without the burial-motif. Not content with aping REBECCA's mean housekeeper, this USHER also borrows from JANE EYRE, revealing at the eleventh hour that Maddy is still alive. She apparently faked her death to avoid being sucked into the curse-pattern, but her avoidance simply caused Rick to go looking for new breeding-grounds. In a denser psychological tale, the author might exploit more resemblances between Jill and Maddy, but Cloake isn't up to that task.

Aside from Isabella Miko, most of the performances are dull. The ending does have a slight twist that I for one didn't see coming.

HEAVY METAL (1981)






PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama, irony, comedy and adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, metaphysical*




As I'm not versed in the practice of music criticism, I can't address one of HEAVY METAL's most prominent aspects: the breadth of the musical accompaniment. I can appreciate the thought that went into the selection of contributing artists-- sometimes it seems more thought than was given to the selection of writing-and-animation-talent! I like that HEAVY METAL incorporates both the hard-driving tunes one usually associates with the term "heavy metal," as with "Radar Rider" and "The Mob Rules," but that it also includes slow ballads like "True Companion" and "Blue Light."

As I think over the stories in the HEAVY METAL anthology-- some of which are affecting in the film proper though they all look rather shallow on paper-- I'm reminded that whenever songs try to tell stories, the narratives generally have to be as stripped-down as possible. It may be that, even though HEAVY METAL the movie adapts some of its stories from comics-tales seen in the same-name magazine, the influence of the musical aesthetic keeps any of the narratives from being overly complex. Granted, any anthology trying to sell itself on the fourfold appeal of sex, drugs, rock-n-roll and ultraviolence might not be expected to be especially deep. But it's not a given that such an anthology would have to be simple: hence, my "stripped-down song-narrative" observation. The scriptwriters' decision to link all the stories through the Loc-Nar gemstone, a.k.a "the sum of all evils," proves the film's best symbolic touch. Old-time movie-theater audiences used to follow a "bouncing ball" to sing lyrics; in HEAVY METAL audiences get to follow a bouncing Mephistopheles as he relates his various successes and failures in corrupting humans (the film's "metaphysical" function for what that's worth).

Almost all of the narratives are enjoyable on the eye-candy level, and few 1980s reviewers gave METAL credit for its visual, as well as auditory, sumptuousness. The film's use of rotoscoping as a substitute for full animation hurts it at times, but unlike some CGI films I might name, HEAVY METAL is never dull. And whereas anthologies like DEAD OF NIGHT have been known to mix a little comedy with their serious dramas, METAL manages to prove its mettle by putting forth at least one story to fit one of Northrop Frye's story-mythoi.

"Harry Canyon," for instance, I judge to be a "drama." The tough cabbie of the story's title is tacitly modeled on the hardboiled private-eye works of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but projected into a grundgy Moebius-like future where corruption runs rampant and the police don't investigate cases unless they're paid up front. Canyon gives shelter to a shady lady on the run from a pack of villains searchng for the fabulos Loc-Nar, with predictable results. Although Canyon gets to hump the babe and blow away a few bad guys, "Canyon" doesn't have the invigorating spirit of heroic adventure and it's not quite nihilistic enough to make a good irony. At best it's sort of like a futuristic Chandler-story with a few ironic motifs borrowed from Hammett.

The splatter-gore horror-tale "B-17" I judge to be a true ironic work. Like many slasher-flicks, the story is straightforward in presenting a narrative in which "no one here gets out alive." WWII pilots encounter zombies. WWII pilots get eaten. End of (my least favorite) story.

"Captain Sternn" and "So Beautiful So Dangerous," both adapted (with significant changes) from stories that appeared in the HEAVY METAL magazine, are comedies. As a stand-alone comics-story Berni Wrightson's "Sternn" was an exquisitely-rendered shaggy dog tale with an ending that didn't work; in the film, the addition of the "Loc-Nar" to the equation improves the narrative tension. In addition, this sequence boasts the best dialogue, and the character Hanover Fiste's long rant against Captain Sternn is eminently quoteworthy. Angus McKie's sprawling "Dangerous" tale is condensed to a handful of space-stoner jokes and a routine about an alien robot getting married to a nice Jewish girl. Tolerable but nothing special.

North American feature-film animation, dominantly oriented on comedy, rarely drunk deeply of the mead of pure adventure-- making it all the more weird that a Canadian studio, rather than one from the U.S., produced the major breakthroughs of "Den" and "Taarna." The things I remember best from watching METAL on a big screen were the wild visuals of these pop-cultural mythologies: the hero Den being pursued by soldiers mounted on giant flying insects, Taarna abasing herself before a gigantic stone idol like something out of the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD. The former was based on the "Den" comics-series authored by Richard Corben, who seemed to derive it from equal samplings of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft. The latter was an original tale, albeit visually indebted to the comics of Moebius. As I recall, in the "Den" tale the sentient Loc-Nar takes the place of a simple treasure-item from the original tale, so that when Den resists the temptation to gain power from the devil-globe, the Burroughsian adventure acquires a pleasing Faustian touch. "Taarna," however, was designed to give the audiences closure as on some far-off planet the female barbarian Taarna is called forth to destroy the Loc-Nar.

One interesting sociological aspect of HEAVY METAL is its treatment of female characters. In many ways METAL seems to channel many of the gender-tensions of the 1970s decade, tensions that were arguably shunted off to the side in 1980s cinema. On one hand. the stories "Harry Canyon" and "Dangerous" use female bodies as pure spectacle, with no finesse whatever. "Den" is a little more clever. It's very straightforward about being a male action-fantasy, dealing as it does with a nerd whose transition to another world mutates him into a super-tough muscleman. And yes, as soon as he gets to the otherworld he saves a huge-breasted girl from a human sacrifice, and she immediately rewards him with her body thereafter. However, though the film makes clear that the girl too is from Earth, it omits to mention (as the comic did) that she too was transformed from ordinary humanity to this pneumatic beauty. So in the original comic book, she's living her "fantasy"-- even though it's suspiciously in tune with a "male fantasy."

The "Taarna" sequence received some criticism in that the heroic barbarian girl dresses like a G-stringed stripper. Of course, it should be mentioned that many male pop-culture heroes stride around half-naked as well, not least Den as well as Tarzan and Conan. And like many heroines of live-action cinema of the 1970s, the fact that the heroine's hot doesn't diminish her ability to kill the villain very dead..

Friday, October 14, 2011

DOUBLE DRAGON (1994)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


DOUBLE DRAGON, the 1994 film adaptation of the popular 1980s video game, was a film I liked purely as I would enjoy a wildly-painted roller-coaster ride. Indeed, the film is so much like a real roller coaster that I'd be surprised if there's a solid twenty minutes when two or more characters aren't screaming "Whooaahh" at the screen (which action is almost the very last thing seen in the flick).

DRAGON focuses on two brothers, Jimmy and Billy Lee, who possess one half of a medallion which, unbeknownst to them, possesses fabulous magical powers. The other half is owned by megalomaniac Kogo Shuko (Robert Patrick, sporting hair that looks like silver Brillo), and he wants the full medallion so that he can conquer the futuristic (2007) civilization of New Angeles. He and his bizarrely-garbed gang of crazies come after the Lees and their few allies, including their sensei Julia Nickson and their impish tough-girl buddy Alyssa Milano. Lots of fight-scenes, largely silly in tone in deference to the PG rating, ensue.

There's nothing clever about DOUBLE DRAGON, whose four writers include Paul 'BATMAN' Dini and Michael 'SHOOT-EM-UP' Davis. The flick pretty much borrows its chaotic futureworld from better films like ROBOCOP and THE WANDERERS, and its one sociological underpinning (Patrick as your basic "grab it all" tycoon-villain) is bare of subtext. It's also a film where death really has no dominion. Nickson's character dies offcamera in an early scene, but though she stays dead her spirit shows up, Obi-Wan style, to cheer the heroes on at the climax. Over halfway through the picture, some writer must've thought the Lees needed some extra motivation to hate Shuko beyond his having killed their sensei, so Shuko offhandedly reveals that he killed their father as well. But though it's mentioned once or twice afterward, no one takes the matter very seriously.

Three elements caused me to enjoy this film despite its lame "we know it's all a big joke" atmosphere. First comes the costume designs of one Fiona Spence (no relation to an actress of the same name), which supply lots of pleasing eye-candy. Second, occasionally a few of the scenarios are a little funny, and I find myself wondering which if any flowed from the efforts of Michael Davis, whose SHOOT-EM-UP is replete with dozens of adventure-tropes-turned-into-cartoons. Third, Robert Patrick seems to have loads of fun with his comic-menacing villain, without ever breaking character. Patrick's Shuko is so ironically self-involved that I could imagine Robert Downey Jr. referencing Patrick's performance for the role of IRON MAN's Tony Stark.

I will note that I probably wouldn't have liked it this much had I paid money to see it in a movie theater.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

DEAD MEN WALK (1943)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

PRC's DEAD MEN WALK follows the same basic pattern as their earlier MAD MONSTER (also starring George Zucco) and THE DEVIL BAT starring Bela Lugosi, because in most respects the villain gets all the narrative attention. However, DEAD does change things up a little in that Zucco acts as both villain and hero, playing a dual role as Satan-worshipping vampire Elwyn Clayton and his good twin brother Lloyd.

Though no one expects great directing from PRC's B-pictures, I'd say that director Sam Newfield (brother to Sigmund Neufeld, head of PRC Studios) turns in a very unremarkable job even compared to his own earlier Zucco effort, THE MAD MONSTER. Newfield's writer on both MONSTER and DEAD was another longtime toiler in B-efforts, Fred Myton. Both also collaborated on a film I reviewed here earlier, NABONGA, and both are remembered for little beyond their horror works.

What's more frustrating about DEAD is not the static look of the direction but a sense of wasted potential. As noted in my review of SEVENTH VICTIM, it was rare in the 1940s for even horror films to allude to present-day Satanism. The master fiction-work of vampirism, DRACULA, even alludes to ties between the vampire-lord and Satanic worship. But the allusions in DEAD are scattered and meaningless, functioning as little more than advertising buzz-words.

I mentioned an Oedipal current in the MGM horror-film MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. With some effort one might see one in DEAD as well, but it, like the references to Satan, gets no dramatic elaboration and so takes on no symbolic resonance. Evil Elwyn comes back from the dead as a vampire and proceeds to torment his good brother Lloyd by doing the sort of heinous thing Lloyd would never do: molesting Lloyd's (and presumably Elwyn's) niece by sucking her blood. But the niece Gayle (Mary Carlisle) remains nothing but a passive victim and generates no interest in her own right.

Only in one scene does the script touch on Freudian patterns more directly. Elwyn has been preying on Gayle a little while, causing Lloyd great consternation in that he knows he can't convince anyone that his brother's back from the dead as a vampire. Gayle's fiancee David, like some other locals in the town, suspect that kindly Lloyd has gone bonkers and is somehow making Gayle sick. There's one scene in which David challenges Lloyd in a misdirected attempt to save Gayle from her paternal protector. However, with relatively little complication Lloyd manages to persuade David to help him fight the vampire, and David does prove industrious in trying to keep the intefering townspeople out of the way.

Nedrick Young, the actor playing David, incidentally, became better-known as a screenwriter than an actor. Dwight Frye does an acceptable job playing "Zolarr," a mad hunchback who worshipped his Satanist master and who essentially retreads old Renfield-ground for this poverty-row Dracula. The final scene, in which Lloyd sacrifices his life to rid the world of his "shadow-self" Elwyn as well as zany Zolarr, shows the most imagination. Just as Elwyn seems close to killing Lloyd, a distant rooster crows and announces the rise of the sun, whereupon Elwyn begins losing power and soon succumbs. It's rather odd that a vampire who abhors the sun should have an assistant whose name sounds like "solar," but the cock's-crow, probably introduced just to get across the idea of the dawning sun as quickly as possible, does add some verve to the climax.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

THE DEVIL BAT (1940)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


THE DEVIL BAT marks poverty-row studio PRC's first attempt to enter the horror-picture business, as well as the first of several microbudgeted fright-films for Bela Lugosi. As he would in various other poverty flicks, Lugosi plays a mad scientist with a particular mad-on for the mundane world that has rejected his outre theories.

One of the odd aspects of the film is that in its opening it's at pains to tell viewers that Lugosi's character, small-town chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers, is universally liked by everyone in town. Presumably this was to downplay Lugosi as the "suspicious foreigner" figure he so often played. Frankly, Carruthers doesn't seem especially likeable, though the actor was capable of projecting charming qualities.

Carruthers nurses a long-concealed grievance: long ago he devised formulae for shaving-lotions for a company in which he held membership. He opted to let his partners buy him out for a cash settlement, and then to his dismay saw them go on to become millionaires from his invention. Carruthers finally decides that he will take vengeance with a unique method. Using advanced electrical treatments, he causes common bats to grow about three times their normal size, and then trains them to attack anything with a certain scent. That scent can only be found in a new brand of shaving-lotion that Carruthers distributes only to the men who bought him out. As soon as the intended victims slap the lotion on their throats, they get unerring visits from the giant bats ready to tear out their jugular veins. Eventually, however, intrepid reporter Dave O'Brien (two years ahead of his becoming "Captain Midnight" in a serial) uncovers Carruthers' scheme and turns the tables on the mad bat-breeder.

One surprising facet of DEVIL BAT is that Carruthers manages to keep his emnity for his former partners under wraps over the course of many years, but presumably the script needed him to do so. Had any of the victims known of his hostility, surely none of them would have donned the deadly cream. Moreover, none of the magnates consider that they cheated Carruthers, which would be the more expected trope of economic exploitation. One of them even reflects, more unthinkingly than callously, that if only Carruthers hadn't let them buy him out, he'd be as rich as any of them. The script thus places the responsibility for the scientist's past failure squarely on his own shoulders. Thus his long-cherished grievances seem to have less of the grandeur of a Promethean challenge to the gods, as seen in Lugosi's Dr. Mirakle in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, and more like the repressed anger of Uriah Heep from Dickens' DAVID COPPERFIELD. This bit of psychology is the only reason I give the film a "fair" rating in terms of mythicity.

Naturally Lugosi's performance is the star attraction here, but O'Brien is one of the few cast-members who proves memorable. Jean Yarbrough's direction on his first horror-picture-- of which he would make a scattered few during his career-- is efficient, but there's not much he can do to eliminate the comic effect of the papier-mache bats. Yet though one imdb review called DEVIL BAT a "comedy-horror," the comic elements aren't prominent, and are actually kept in control-- which is more than one can say of many other horror-films that included wisecracking reporters in the mix.

One odd metatextual touch: about halfway through the picture, after reporter O'Brien kills one of the bats with a handgun, a subsequent newspaper headline is presented to viewers reading, "REPORTER KILLS DEVIL BAT." This is fairly risible in itself, but not as funny as the only other two words discernible to DVD viewers on the screen: "GIRLS" and "AMERICANISM."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

DEAD OF NIGHT (1945)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological, metaphysical*


It's always puzzled me that 20th-century British cinema was so slow to exploit the pleasures of scary stories, given that the culture boasts some of the best-known masters of the fictional frisson, ranging from novelists like Stoker and Shelley to those better known from spooky short tales, like M.R. James and E.F. Benson. Whatever the reason, Ealing Studios's 1945 anthology film DEAD OF NIGHT finally translated the quintessential feel of the British horror-tale into celluloid. That it included adaptations from two British prose-authors, the aforementioned Benson and H.G. Wells may have helped guide the filmmakers (despite the fact that one doesn't ordinarily think of "H.G. Wells" and "horror" in the same sentence).

DEAD OF NIGHT begins with a dream, and to some extent, one never definitively knows where dream and reality part company. Architect Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) journeys to a country house to investigate a business prospect, only to find that he has a hazy recollection of his host and all of the man's guests from his dreams. Craig's tormented fear that his dreams may come true in some way sparks the guests to start relating their own brushes with the supernatural, with one noteworthy exception. Three of the stories related deal with ghostly survival ("Christmas Party," "Haunted Mirror," and "Golfing Story,"), a fourth, "The Hearse Driver," deals with a timely premonition, and the last, "The Ventriloquist," is told by psychologist Dr. Van Stratten (Frederick Valk) about a ventriloquist whose mental problems cause him to take on a "dual identity" with his dummy. Throughout the framing-sections of the anthology Van Stratten functions as a foil to the others, who tend to show some tentative belief in the supernatural. Van Stratten is never decisively converted by the anecdotes, but when one aspect of Craig's dream comes true-- with deadly results for the psychologist-- he comes to regret his staunch materialism.

That "quintessential feel" I mentioned above is the film's ability to convey how hints of the supernatural slowly infiltrate the cultural belief-systems of the protagonists. Because all of them exemplify stereotypical British traits of reasonableness and common decency, the eruptions of the incomprehensible into their worlds becomes all the more effective. Ironically, the doctrine of scientific materialism is exemplified by a character given a Germanic-sounding name, which may have allowed the original British audience to "distance" themselves more from materialism and to believe in parapsychological events as being more true to common experience.

It's ironic that the final story in DEAD is not, strictly speaking, marvelous as the others are; since there's never any strong conviction that the rebellious ventriloquist's dummy is actually alive, I would label the story by itself "uncanny." Yet "The Ventriloquist" is for many fans their favorite story. On my earlier viewings, I found it creepy enough, but not nearly as persuasive as some later "dummy-horror" outings. In addition, the character of the maybe-schizophrenic ventriloquist isn't drawn nearly as well as some of the other characters. "Haunted Mirror" manages to play on the unease between a man and woman planning on joining their lives together, as a ghost slowly possesses the husband and turns him against his new wife, with nearly fatal results. "Christmas Party" also deals with the sins of the past, albeit in more mournful, less scary fashion. "Golfing Story" (the tale adapted from Wells) is an amusing tale of two golf-rivals bickering with one another from beyond the grave, giving the viewer a brief respite from the doom and gloom. But for my money, "Hearse Driver," in which the tale-teller describes a near-brush with destiny, had the creepiest vibe, although the final dream-sequence in Craig's head-- in which he encounters all the figures from everyone else's stories-- is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

In terms of phenomenality the film presents some problems. In the end, it seems as if everything the viewer has seen has been part of Craig's dream. If this was the entirety of the film I might label it with the trope "delirious dreams and fallacious figments." Yet, because Craig seems to be in diegetic "reality" for the last frames of the film-- because it seems that he is finally about to have a "real" encounter with all these people narrating stories of "real" encounters with the supernatural-- I've labelled the film as dominantly "marvelous."

The Campbellian motifs here depend on the focus of each particular story. I would judge most of them dominantly psychological, particularly "Haunted Mirror," but the framing-story supplies some simplified debates about the nature of the metaphysical. And to the extent that DEAD OF NIGHT conveys the sense of British commonplace rationalism breaking down, the film also incarnates a minor sociological-cultural conflict.